WhatsApp: What Really Happens On May 15

Adem Ay

On May 15th, WhatsApp will launch its new privacy policy. It’s mostly unchanged from the moment it was first revealed, pushing millions of people to leave the service. Even now, with a few days to go, social media, including WhatsApp’s subreddit, is abuzz with people trying to decide — should they stay or should they go?

Today, I want to take apart WhatsApp’s decision and try to highlight why this one is such a dangerous turn. Let’s look at the facts.

What the Terms Are

Glen Carrie

It’s no secret that WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, which brings with it a certain reputation. It was pretty much assumed that any metadata or data that your WhatsApp account leaks — location, phone number, contact list, chatting habits — was going straight into the Facebook data machine. But, thanks to these new terms, we don’t have to assume any longer. It is stated plainly that WhatsApp will share your data and, in fact, it specifies what kinds of data are being harvested from each and every user. Aside from the standard stuff, there’s also “battery level, signal strength, app version, browser information, mobile network, […] device operations information, and identifiers”.

This isn’t exactly surprising as Facebook is infamous for collecting as much user data as possible and being quite negligent with it. What’s troubling is desktop users could largely avoid the data collection by using privacy-friendly browsers and extensions, blocking Facebook’s trackers and harvesting. This update, though, poses a demand: either you accept Facebook’s prying eyes making money off your data or your account gets deactivated. Or at least that’s what they were saying since the terms were revealed and up until May 7.

Using a Time Bomb

With the deadline looming, WhatsApp decided to drum up goodwill with a PR-like FAQ statement that hid a nasty surprise. The company stated that those who do not accept the unpleasant new terms on May 15 will not lose their account, as was previously suggested. Instead, the company will simply start to turn off “core functionalities” after some unspecified time.

Your account doesn’t get deleted, it becomes unusable.

If you’re wondering what these “core functionalities” are, well, it’s looking pretty similar to straight up account deactivation. The list includes losing access to your chat list and, after “a few weeks” you will also lose the ability to answer calls or even receive notifications. So, your account doesn’t get deleted, it becomes unusable. At this point it’s evident that this is a last-ditch effort by WhatsApp to pretend that rejecting their anti-privacy update won’t cost you your account. But the bottom line is clear: either you give in and let Facebook feast on your privacy or you lose access to all your chats and contacts. Although, perhaps, this is a high time for a third option.

We Don’t Negotiate

Dimitri Karastelev

There is one side of the problem that gets overlooked — WhatsApp messaging and calls are free in some countries, included in mobile provider’s monthly packages. Here’s, for example, a South African provider offering bundles of data specifically for WhatsApp usage. With this kind of hold on the mobile market, Facebook roots itself in the country’s cultural norms. It just makes sense to use WhatsApp when it’s all free. Or at least it was free, up until Facebook decided to blatantly make users pay with their private data. So the next time you top up the data on your phone, think about what you’re really paying and how much profit WhatsApp will make off of your personal information. Because as long as we’re stuck with Facebook’s products, its influence keeps growing, making it even harder to break free in the future. Let’s not wait.

Instead of losing your conversations or caving to Facebook’s demands, this is, once again, your chance to move to a better service and take your friends with you. Just like in January, when people flocked to Telegram and Signal, the time for change is now. You can even move your chats from WhatsApp directly to Telegram, so switching doesn’t have to mean saying goodbye to precious moments. Moreover, both Signal and Telegram have UI that’s quite similar to WhatsApp, simplifying the change even for older people that might not want to learn how to use a different app. Why settle for privacy invasion when you can go to apps that WhatsApp took its encryption and features from? At this point, Signal and Telegram outpace the Facebook product by a large margin, with Telegram serving monthly updates while WhatsApp delivers an update with six sticker packs once in a blue moon. No point in settling for a subpar product.

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